Higher Ed Must Change or Die
Inside Higher Ed
August 16, 2022
In 2011, then Nokia CEO Stephen Elop delivered a poignant and passionate memo to all of the company’s employees. There was no sugarcoating the overarching theme of the sincere but somber and grimly characterized 1,227-word message.
Nokia was “standing on a burning platform.” The reference—to an oil rig explosion and one worker’s choice to either remain on the fiery precipice or jump almost 100 feet into the icy North Sea—illustrated Nokia’s dire future. If the company did not urgently adapt and reclaim its role as a leader in telecommunications and information technology innovation, it risked losing everything.
Sound familiar? Let’s examine the higher education industry in 2022.
I am the president of Pennsylvania’s second-largest institution of higher education. Temple University is a public, R-1 research university in a major East Coast city with a medical school and health system. Our research portfolio has more than tripled in the last decade. You would think all of these key distinctions would help me rest easy at night. That has not been the case as of late.
I do not take the role as president of Philadelphia’s public university lightly, and I recognize the weight of my words. So, let me be crystal clear with what I am about to state next. In the goodness of transparency, please know that I hope that every university and college president and administrator, across the country, sees this op-ed as my version of a burning platform memo.
Enrollment for both undergraduate and graduate students at U.S. colleges and universities decreased by 4.1 percent—or about 685,000 students—in spring 2022 compared to spring 2021. The number is compounded even further when you go back to 2020. The overall two-year decline is 7.4 percent, meaning that nearly 1.3 million fewer students are pursuing postsecondary education today compared to just two years ago.
COVID-19 was a factor, and the demographic shift is very real. But make no mistake: instigating factors are more than that. The value of the college degree, in my analysis, has reached its peak and is on the wane. There are a host of factors to blame, stretching from cost and affordability to curriculum relevance to rapidly evolving skill needs to advances in automation and technology. But playing the blame game only gets us so far.
Imagine if a company lost nearly 10 percent of its profits in two years. The situation would be catastrophic. Drastic changes would be expected. We have lost nearly 10 percent of our students, but where is our sense of urgency? What will it take for us to recognize that the status quo is not working?
The evolution of education can be broken down into four phases: agrarian (1600–1849), when a privileged few had formal education; industrial (1850–1974), which introduced universal secondary education; knowledge (1975–2009), when the internet transformed life, education and work; and post-recession (2010–2020), where the value of a degree has never been more in question. And now, we must collectively determine what comes next.